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Utah House approves watered down Ten Commandments bill despite constitutional concerns 


Utah House approves watered down Ten Commandments bill despite constitutional concerns 

Feb 23, 2024 | 4:58 pm ET
By Katie McKellar
Utah House approves watered down Ten Commandments bill despite constitutional concerns聽
The Capitol in Salt Lake City is pictured on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024. (Photo by Spenser Heaps for Utah News Dispatch)

A Utah bill that originally would have required all of the state’s public schools to post the Ten Commandments but has since been changed to allow the biblical principles to be taught as part of school curricula cleared a major legislative hurdle on Thursday evening.

The Utah House voted 49-16 to pass HB269. It now goes to the Senate for consideration, with about one week left in the 2024 Legislative session. 

When the bill’s sponsor Rep. Michael Petersen, R-North Logan, first filed the bill, it would have required all of Utah’s public schools to “display a poster or framed copy” of the Ten Commandments in a “prominent location” in every one of their buildings. 

But when the bill got its first public hearing in front of the House Education Committee last week, Petersen watered it down to simply add the Ten Commandments — as well as the Magna Carta — to an optional list of historical documents and principles that government and history teachers can choose to use in their curricula. 

Utah lawmaker wants to require schools to post the Ten Commandments

That list in Utah code currently includes other documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the Pledge of Allegiance, the national anthem and the Mayflower Compact, among others. 

In the House committee, Petersen didn’t explain his decision to change his bill from its original version, but he argued the Ten Commandments has an “undeniable” place in U.S. history. 

“The Ten Commandments, while it is a religious document, is a very historical document in that it colored the way our founders wrote the Constitution, wrote the Declaration (of Independence),” Petersen said. “It colored the way they developed our civil society.”  

The House Education Committee voted 6-2 to advance the bill to the House floor, despite questions about whether it’s necessary and Democrats expressing concerns about whether the Ten Commandments should be studied in classrooms with students who may or may not be religious. 

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, a retired high school teacher, wondered how “it’s going to make kids feel that aren’t part of a Christian” religion.

“It just seems like it might make them feel uncomfortable,” she said. 

A legislative attorney told lawmakers there’s “definitely a possibility” that the bill “runs afoul” of a provision of the Utah Constitution that states “no public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise or instruction, or for the support of any ecclesiastical establishment.” However, it would depend on how a court would interpret it, he said. 

In response to separation of church and state concerns, Petersen said he’s confident teachers, if they choose to teach the Ten Commandments, can navigate the discussion professionally and without preaching. 

While teachers can technically already discuss the Ten Commandments in class, he said there’s a “hesitancy” among teachers that he wants to dispel. “I want to be explicit that we can teach these things.” 

Conservative groups including the Utah Eagle Forum and the Worldwide Organization for Women urged lawmakers to support it, arguing that teachers could include it in their curriculum without violating the constitution.

“As a teacher, I find this really, really important,” said Daphne England with the Utah Eagle Forum. “We are so concerned about our youth right now. Suicide, sexuality, bullying, self indulgence. … All of these things our kids are dealing with, we should be teaching the principles of the Bible.” 

Groups representing teachers have opposed the bill. Sarah Jones, director of government relations for the Utah Education Association, questioned whether it would conflict with another bill making its way through the Utah Legislature to require Utah teachers to be “neutral” in the classroom, not just when it comes to religion but also “political or social” beliefs. 

Bill would require Utah teachers be politically ‘neutral’ in what they say and display in class

“Regardless of whether you decide there is in fact a conflict in code, I think this bill certainly confuses the intent of the Legislature about what you want educators to be teaching,” Jones said. 

On the House floor, Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy, unsuccessfully tried to move an amendment to Petersen’s bill that would have added the full text of the Bible and the Torah to the list of historical documents that teachers could choose from. 

Stoddard argued that if the Utah Legislature is going to include a religious document in the list and the goal is to “provide an accurate view of history, we can’t pick and choose which history they get to learn about.” 

Petersen argued his bill is “not about proselytizing,” but rather he wants to “expose students to the truths of American history.” He argued it’s more focused on “empowering our teachers.”

“I understand the concerns that we’ll turn our schools into seminaries,” he said, “but let’s not allow that fear to prevent students from getting a complete and accurate American history and government experience.” 

The bill now goes to the Senate. The session ends before midnight on March 1.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Rep. Michael Petersen is from North Ogden. He’s from North Logan.